Hall of Flame


Hall of Flame

THE NEW CRITERION, November 2017

Hall of Flame

On Stanford White’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

Among the summer flush of de-memorialization, one target called out with particular alacrity: Stanford White’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans. A monument to remembering now largely forgotten in the University Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, the Hall of Fame saw a flash of notoriety this past August. A website reported that the busts of “two slaveholding Confederate generals sit unperturbed on the grounds of Bronx Community College.” Local politicians on up to the governor of New York issued swift condemnations. The president of the college released a brief statement: the school remains “committed to reflecting its values of diversity and inclusion in all of its actions and statements. Embracing difference includes creating space where all people feel respected, welcomed, and valued. To that end, we will be removing and replacing the busts.” By that evening, all evidence of the figures—two bronze busts and their accompanying bronze tablets—had been pulled from view, leaving empty pedestals and a denuded landmark that now returns to historical obscurity.

In a city that celebrates William Tecumseh Sherman with a gilded equestrian statue at the corner of Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, it was certainly curious to find busts of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson included in a “hall of fame for great Americans.” More curious still was their appearance in a bucolic but overlooked corner of the Bronx, on the campus of a community college few have heard of—which was once headed by a veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen who sought funding and acclaim for the architectural legacy in his charge. Or that, included among the nearly hundred “great Americans” arranged around these two Confederates, were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ward Beecher, and George Washington Carver—and, for that matter, Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman.

Boy scouts admire the bust of Abraham Lincoln in an undated photograph. 

Boy scouts admire the bust of Abraham Lincoln in an undated photograph. 

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans has never been a Confederate monument, or even a monument to Confederates. A relic of urban history, it is rather one of the city’s most remarkable memorials to beaux-arts design and turn-of-the-century aspiration, the shadow of one university and the responsibility of another, now nearly unknown beyond the students and faculty who keep it alive. Its defacement, however expedient or politically charged, is an alteration of a city landmark without review, or even public comment, as to its legality. Such intervention is also the latest affront in a half-century of neglect and abuse for a site that should be a focus of architectural and cultural acclaim.

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans records a time when cultural energy and grand form combined in the flowering of the Beaux Arts and the effervescent theater of its greatest interpreter, Stanford White. Driven by the city’s economic engine following the Civil War, two small downtown colleges nearly simultaneously sought to create ambitious new campuses uptown. Columbia looked to the heights of Morningside. New York University, meanwhile, captured the highest promontory of the Bronx, on a bluff above the Harlem River. The forty-acre estate of the nyu alumnus H. W. T. Mali, with sweeping views across northern Manhattan to the Palisades of New Jersey, was transformed into nyu’s new University Heights campus.

Stanford White’s Gould Memorial Library soon after its completion. Photo: New York University Archives

Stanford White’s Gould Memorial Library soon after its completion. Photo: New York University Archives

Both schools selected the firm of McKim, Mead & White to design their campuses. Each were anchored by libraries that spoke to the grandeur of the schools’ classical inheritance and their own academic ambitions. Unlike Columbia, however, New York University determined to maintain two academic centers. University Heights became its new uptown campus. Its older site, around Washington Square, remained in simultaneous operation. This arrangement continued for three-quarters of a century, until the university abandoned the Bronx and reconsolidated in 1973.

The creation of the University Heights campus was the initiative of Henry Mitchell MacCracken, a Presbyterian minister and writer who became the chancellor of nyu in 1891. MacCracken believed his move uptown “would fulfill more nearly the American ideal of college.” His vision for his school, and the role of art and architecture in his new campus, made him an active, if not altogether welcome, partner to its master architect, Stanford White.

Unlike Columbia’s uptown campus, which occupies a high plain, nyu’s University Heights campus terminates in a steep slope behind the site of its western anchor, Gould Memorial Library, a structure funded by Helen Miller Gould Shepard, the daughter of Jay Gould and herself an alumna of the University. Faced with the challenge of the site, White made the most of its topography and impressive views by designing a 630-foot terrace and colonnade, built atop a high, curving retaining wall that wrapped around the back of his new library.

It was MacCracken’s genius to turn this open-air promenade, with its classical columns and Guastavino-tiled ceiling, into a new institution, and a growing monument, dedicated to American achievement. Inspired by such predecessors as Munich’s “Ruhmeshalle,” Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, the National Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol, and the Panthéon in Paris, he created America’s “Hall of Fame”—the original, and the one that has now led to countless others in sports and entertainment. MacCracken believed that not only statesmen, but also soldiers, jurists, writers, and artists should be honored together in this one American pantheon. He also created a mechanism for public engagement, with open nominations to be sent up to a blue-ribbon jury of one hundred electors. New “Hall of Famers” were to be added by majority vote every five years.

McKim, Mead & White original architectural plans for Gould Memorial Library. Photo: New York University Archives

McKim, Mead & White original architectural plans for Gould Memorial Library. Photo: New York University Archives

The Hall of Fame quickly caught the public’s imagination, with the election of new honorees becoming a sensational event. The initial selection began in 1900 and continued until the late 1970s and its era of national uncertainty. Each new addition was marked by a bronze tablet, created by Tiffany Studios and mounted to the wall of the promenade, which recorded the name, the date of birth, the date of death, and a notable quote. Funds were subsequently raised for the commissioning of each of the portrait busts, which have been designed by Daniel Chester French, Frederick MacMonnies, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, among others. The busts were often dedicated decades after induction, as funding allowed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected in 1973, was the last to receive one, with a bust by Jo Davidson dedicated in 1992. Louis D. Brandeis, Clara Barton, Luther Burbank, and Andrew Carnegie still await their own commemorative statuary.

The Hall of Fame may be just as notable for its idiosyncratic collection of Americans as it is for the busts on display. It speaks, in a unique way, to the figures of importance in America at the time of their election. Today there are still numerous familiar faces, from Daniel Chester French’s haunting image of Edgar Allan Poe to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s downturned visage of Abraham Lincoln. Yet there are many Americans along this vaulted empyrean who are now far from household names. How about Hall of Famer Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine (elected 1915)? Or Matthew Fontaine Maury, who charted ocean currents (1930)? Or Charlotte Saunders Cushman, Shakespearean actress (1915)? Or Phillips Brooks, who wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1910)? Any visit to the Hall of Fame is an education in American history and in American hagiography—and in American forgetfulness—with the names, quotes, dates, and busts all forming a unified whole.

It is within this context that the removal of Lee (1900) and Jackson (1955), and any notice of their long-time inclusion, speaks to a lessening of design and loss of a historical record. Figures in the Hall operate in visual dialogue not only with us but also with one another. Grant looked across the colonnade at Jackson, and Farragut at Lee. Both Confederate busts were underwritten by the Daughters of the Confederacy, like many of the country’s now controversial monuments, but their inclusion was regarded by the Hall’s Northern overseers as a nod to national unity—in 1900, just thirty-five years from the end of America’s bloodiest war. The busts may have indeed represented the very “values of diversity and inclusion . . . embracing difference” that today’s leadership says they offend. Now that they are gone, we no longer are able to interpret their historical meaning for ourselves.

The Rotunda of Gould Memorial Library. Photo: James Panero

The Rotunda of Gould Memorial Library. Photo: James Panero

The diminishment of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans undermines an ever greater architectural whole, one centered around White’s crowning masterpiece, Gould Memorial Library. Circling around it, the Hall of Fame represents the radiant American outcome of the timeless knowledge contained within. Architecturally, Gould Memorial Library also serves as a stunning counterpoint to the more grounded classicism of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library, designed by White’s partner, Charles Follen McKim. Compared to McKim’s “architecture of weight and gravity,” writes Richard Guy Wilson in his history of their firm, White “remained tied to a pictorial vision of architecture, dazzling surface effects of light, texture, color, and ornament.”

The pedastal that formerly held the bust of “Stonewall” Jackson, soon after its removal. 

The pedastal that formerly held the bust of “Stonewall” Jackson, soon after its removal. 

Drawing on both the Pantheon in Rome and Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia, White’s Gould Memorial Library opens in yellow Roman brick and an imposing east portico of six Corinthian columns. And like the original Pantheon, White gives little impression outside of the spaces within. Two monumental bronze doors (now a memorial to White himself, created as a tribute by his own artisans in the 1920s) lead onto a steep, barrel-vaulted internal staircase, through which White delays the reveal even more. When we finally arrive, the heart of Gould Library opens up as a dizzying, celestial golden rotunda, with a spiraling coffered dome originally illuminated by a large glass oculus (made larger at the insistence of MacCracken). Tiffany glass at one time added to the effect by shining dappled light in a kaleidoscope of colors onto the library collection, which once lined both the inside and outside of the rotunda walls. The names of great thinkers are imprinted in gold throughout, while hidden doors lead onto what was once classroom space for the school’s academic disciplines.

University Heights was already a diminished campus when New York University sold it in 1973 for what became Bronx Community College. nyu’s subsequent consolidation and self-enrichment built out the corpus for that school’s growth into the neoliberal empire it is today. Gould Memorial Library had already been decommissioned before the departure. The books had been removed to another building in a campus expansion, overseen by Marcel Breuer in the 1960s, that attempted a flat-footed jump from the Gilded Age to the Space Age. In contrast to nyu, it is important to say that Bronx Community College has worked diligently to maintain its Gilded Age patrimony, and it keeps its doors open to all visitors, every day and free of charge. In 2012, an even newer library, this one designed by Robert A. M. Stern, opened on the campus in a style that majestically engages White’s original vision.

The auditorium of Gould Memorial Library in 1969, after being firebombed during student protests. Photo: New York University Archives

The auditorium of Gould Memorial Library in 1969, after being firebombed during student protests. Photo: New York University Archives

Why then intervene in a landmark campus by altering its statuary? The answer may be found in the basement auditorium of Gould Memorial Library. Directly below the rotunda, White created another domed space, again illuminated by Tiffany glass and a skylight that reached up through the rotunda floor. In 1969, as the campus was engulfed in protest, an arsonist threw a Molotov cocktail into this auditorium. The fire, which nearly burned down the entire library, fully destroyed its lower level and shattered its Tiffany glass on up to the oculus.

Half a century on, even before Bronx Community College could shuffle Lee and Jackson off to storage, vandals had already defaced the busts and tablets with paint. The specter of leftist violence still haunts University Heights. Radical unrest remains the ultimate threat to a campus that Bronx Community College has worked to preserve for over forty years. That such a complex could be so swiftly and unquestionably effaced must serve as a monument to our time. Its empty pedestals are now the memorials to our own iconoclasm.


Gallery Chronicle (October 2017)


Gallery Chronicle (October 2017)


Gallery Chronicle

On three exhibitions at Paul Kasmin Gallery, “Mel Kendrick: Woodblock Drawings” at David Nolan Gallery, “The Thing Unseen” at the New York Studio School Gallery, “Christopher Wilmarth” at Betty Cunningham Gallery, “Eric Brown: Punctuate” at Theodore:Art, “Brenda Goodman: In a New Space” at David&Schweitzer Contemporary, and “Meg Hitchcock: 10,000 Mantras” at Studio 10.

Following its summer aestivation, the New York gallery scene returned with strong openings all September. Galleries are the new museums—places where art can still speak for itself. But galleries are also a dying breed—dying not for our sins but our distractions. These days any gallery that finds a way to survive into another season seems like a triumph in adversity. Some still triumph mightily.

Consider the three-show, three-venue lineup at Chelsea’s Paul Kasmin, which continues through October. At the gallery’s 293 Tenth Avenue location, “Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings” examines the lesser-known, experimental abstractions of the artist’s pre-“Elegy” years.1 Around the corner at Kasmin’s 515 West Twenty-seventh Street venue, “Caro & Olitski: 1965–1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays” looks to the personal friendship and creative dialogue between sculptor and painter.2 And finally, up the block at the gallery’s 297 Tenth Avenue address, in “The Enormity of the Possible,” the independent curator Priscilla Vail Caldwell brings the first generation of American modernists together with some of the later Abstract Expressionists—Milton Avery, Oscar Bluemner, Charles Burchfield, Stuart Davis, John Marin, Elie Nadelman, and Helen Torr, among others, with Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.3

Robert Motherwell, The Hotel Corridor, 1950, Oil on masonite, Paul Kasmin Gallery

Robert Motherwell, The Hotel Corridor, 1950Oil on masonitePaul Kasmin Gallery

Judging from the examples in “Early Paintings,” Robert Motherwell displayed graphic confidence and innovative range from the very start. In the early 1940s, Motherwell was encouraged out of the classroom and into the studio by Meyer Schapiro, his doctoral advisor at Columbia University. He visited the painter Roberto Matta in Mexico City and, back in New York, saw Piet Mondrian’s first solo exhibition at the Valentine Gallery. Both were influential. By his mid-twenties, where this exhibition begins, a dual sense for narrative mood and pictorial space already infused his work, with geometry often concealing and imprisoning the forms underneath.

The Spanish Prison (Window), from 1943–44, explores the ominous undertones of abstract line and form, in a work that Motherwell later said was the first of his “Spanish Elegies.” The paintings that follow here, through the early 1950s, further distill this abstract mood, with formal structure evolving into ever-more-expressive deployments of color and paint-handling—the siren flash of Orange Personage (1947), the blood and bones of The Hotel Corridor (1950).

“Caro & Olitski: 1965–1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays” is a revelatory exhibition for the many resonances it finds between the British sculptor and the American painter, who each joined the art department of Vermont’s Bennington College in 1963.

Both artists famously explored the abstract potential of industrial tools and materials— Caro’s oxyacetylene welding equipment; Olitski’s spray guns. They also thought similarly of color and line, exploring not only new materials but also the new shapes they found in their painted and sculpted forms. The lines at the edges of Olitski’s paintings frame the airy voids of his sprays, while the welded metal of Caro’s sculptures traces out shapes in space. Their shared sense for seamless industrial texture, with Caro’s toothy enamels and Olitski’s cloud-like sprays, makes this a perfectly paired show.

Installation view of  “Caro & Olitski: 1965–1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays” at Paul Kasmin Gallery

Installation view of  “Caro & Olitski: 1965–1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays” at Paul Kasmin Gallery

There may be no greater joy than seeing the first generation of American modernists in Chelsea, where anything made before 1945 is pre-history, and the American modernists are the neglected Old Masters. “The Enormity of the Possible” gathers the best of them—the haunted forms of Elie Nadelman, the jazz syncopations of Stuart Davis, the moody mountainscapes of Milton Avery.

Charles Burchfield never painted a bad picture, and Lilacs No. 2 (ca. 1939–63) must rank among the best of them, as flowers, trees, and house all reveal animating forces in a living, breathing verdure.

Many of the individual works here sing, but as a whole the exhibition is overhung and overthought, taking on more than the storefront space might allow with a show that wants to spread out, and with fewer lines than one might wish drawn between the generations. The installation feels like the booth at an art fair, and perhaps in a way it is—a cubicle of American art history on display, for too short a time, on a corner of contemporary Chelsea.

Charles Burchfield, Lilacs No. 2, 1963, Watercolor on pieced paper, Paul Kasmin Gallery

Charles Burchfield, Lilacs No. 2, 1963Watercolor on pieced paperPaul Kasmin Gallery

Mel Kendrick has staked his career on exploring the positive and the negative in drawing, printmaking, photography, and sculpture. With the eye of a photographic plate, he finds the black in the white, the projection in the emulsion, the print in the press, and the shape in the void. Most known for his sculptures carved out of blocks that form their own pedestals, Kendrick has a varied studio practice that may find his stamps turned into sculptures turned into photographs, all in a flipping, tumbling performance of process and materials.

Now at Chelsea’s David Nolan Gallery, “Mel Kendrick: Woodblock Drawings” reassembles a series of large-scale woodblock prints created in 1992 and 1993 along with a single spidery wooden construction.4 What from far away resemble surrealist drawings are revealed, upon closer inspection, to be enormous paper sheets printed with equally enormous plywood stamps. Closer still and the manufacturing of these stamped objects becomes apparent, with the swirling jigsaw cuts and metal hardware, down to the Phillips-head screws, that must have held the stamps together. In the paper print of this wooden matrix, cuts become lines and woodgrain becomes shading, with the wood’s textural variations now transformed into the stark contrast of a black print on white paper. Kendrick calls these prints “drawings,” and in the silky lines of the woodgrain they draw out a startling impression.

Installation view of “The Thing Unseen: A Centennial Celebration of Nicolas Carone.” Photo: the New York Studio School.

Installation view of “The Thing Unseen: A Centennial Celebration of Nicolas Carone.” Photo: the New York Studio School.

In his long and remarkably productive life, Nicolas Carone (1917–2010) worked through the full history of American modernism. In the 1940s and ’50s, as a young man he painted and sculpted on the cusp of modernist invention. In the 2000s, into his nineties, he created some of the most striking pictures of his career. This amazing range is now on display at the gallery of the New York Studio School, where he was a founding member of the faculty, in “The Thing Unseen: A Centennial Celebration of Nicolas Carone.”5

A classically trained artist who studied at age eleven in the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, the same atelier that Isamu Noguchi attended, which was created for New York’s working poor in Alphabet City, Carone went on to become a member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Along the way Carone never gave up on the figure. His work oscillated between abstraction and figuration, drawing equally on the push–pull lessons of Hans Hofmann and the classical faces he found in Italy while painting there on a Fulbright after the war.

Christopher Wilmarth, Macquette for “Days on Blue”,  ca. 1974, Glass and steel, Betty Cunningham Gallery

Christopher Wilmarth, Macquette for “Days on Blue”,  ca. 1974Glass and steelBetty Cunningham Gallery

Curated by Ro Lohin, “The Thing Unseen” itself oscillates between periods and styles. The exhibition shows the breadth of Carone’s work while also revealing his non-linear progression, with classical charcoal studies and fragmentary portraiture mixed in among abstract lines and forms. Most arresting, and illuminating, are the large black-and-white paintings that face each other across the show’s two rooms. Shadow Dance and Sound of Blue Light are each aggressive confrontations of marks and drips—paintings that belong in major museums—in which fugitive figures emerge and disappear in an abstract fog. Separated by fifty years, these two paintings, from 2007 and 1957, remain unified in Carone’s timeless vision.

Don’t be surprised if you walk into Betty Cuningham’s Lower East Side gallery, looking for the sculptures of Christopher Wilmarth, and find Tibor de Nagy’s exhibition of Larry Rivers instead. I expect we will see much more consolidation of New York galleries—especially the best ones—as the serious business of art gives way to name brands and celebrity culture. Midtown’s historic Tibor de Nagy has now joined Betty Cuningham downtown to share resources on Rivington Street, alternating between Cuningham’s main gallery and the project space next door. It is here that we find Wilmarth (1943–1987), the minimalist sculptor of the maximal.6

It was Wilmarth’s great innovation to find the spiritual dimension in metal’s hard edge. In the 1970s, using etched glass, he filled the spaces of his metal sculptures with an ineffable, cloudy mist. Wilmarth set out to “make sculptures that evoke a spiritual disembodied state close to that of reverie; the kind of perfection that I have found during my ‘revelations’ or ‘epiphanies,’ ” as he said in 1980. In the early 1980s, inspired by seven poems by Mallarmé, in a translation by Frederick Morgan, Wilmarth furthered this exploration of glass and air in a series called “Breath.” The minimalist angles of the 1970s and the breath-filled curves of the 1980s are both on display at Cuningham in sculptural maquettes and works on paper. The artist’s suicide in 1987, at the age of forty-four, still haunts the show, as it does all of Wilmarth’s somber and emotive work.

Eric Brown, White Triangle, 2017, Oil on linen, Theodore:Art

Eric Brown, White Triangle, 2017Oil on linenTheodore:Art

Finally, a word on Bushwick, Brooklyn. The neighborhood hosted its eleventh Open Studios weekend in late September. It also continues to display a vital energy in the face of Manhattan’s retrenchment. I suspect the fifteen-month shutdown of the L Train in 2019 may put an end to that, but for now the galleries of 56 Bogart Street alone, off the Morgan Street stop, continue to outdo themselves.

At Theodore:Art, Eric Brown, in “Punctuate,” examines the tension of figure and ground in paintings that are fun and funny—caprices of 1960s Color Field art.7 At David&Schweitzer, the esteemed Brenda Goodman finds expression in the working and reworking of her materials, with etched-over abstractions that read as psychological portraiture.8

Meg Hitchock, King of Prayers, 2017, Mixed media, Studio 10

Meg Hitchock, King of Prayers, 2017Mixed media, Studio 10

Meanwhile, in “10,000 Mantras,” at Studio 10, Meg Hitchcock continues to use collage as a meditative practice through the reformulation of cut letters taken from holy (and not-so-holy) books.9 Here, the flat shapes of earlier work give way to increasingly complex stacks of letters. Incense sticks are used to burn holes in grids, ten thousand at a time, increasing the dimensions of her works on paper. Undoubtedly, the moma crowd would prefer to see Dadaist nonsense in such recombinations, not spiritual yearning. But the intensity of the work speaks to the intensity of her pursuit. Here is art that is serious and unabashed, finding a way to exist.

1 “Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings” opened at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue, New York, on September 7 and remains on view through October 28, 2017.

2 “Caro & Olitski: 1965–1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays” opened at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 515 West 27th Street, New York, on September 7 and remains on view through October 25, 2017.

3 “The Enormity of the Possible” opened at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 297 Tenth Avenue, New York, on September 7 and remains on view through October 28, 2017.

4 “Mel Kendrick: Woodblock Drawings” opened at David Nolan Gallery, New York, on September 7 and remains on view through October 28, 2017.

5 “The Thing Unseen: A Centennial Celebration of Nicolas Carone” opened at the New York Studio School Gallery, New York, on September 5 and remains on view through October 15, 2017.

6 “Christopher Wilmarth” opened at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York, on September 6 and remains on view through October 29, 2017.

7 “Eric Brown: Punctuate” opened at Theodore:Art, Brooklyn, on September 8 and remains on view through October 22, 2017.

8 “Brenda Goodman: In a New Space” opened at David&Schweitzer Contemporary, Brooklyn, on September 8 and remains on view through October 1, 2017.

9 “Meg Hitchcock: 10,000 Mantras” opened at Studio 10, Brooklyn, on September 8 and remains on view through October 8, 2017.